Wagner's Motif's & Their Consequences
The most wonderful thing about Wagner’s Ring Operas is his use of the Leitmotif. This is a system whereby each character is given a musical signature theme. So are certain key objects, such as Sigmund’s sword or the river Rhine. So are even central abstract concepts such as a Curse or World Power.
So, with some exceptions, the orchestral accompaniment to the singers is an intricately woven tissue of Leitmotifs, used in many permutations and combinations, often to powerful or hauntingly beautiful effect. Listen to a concert version of Siegfried’s Funeral March without any knowledge of what each motif represents, read up on it, and hear it yet again with that knowledge. One’s enjoyment is dectupled, at least.(In this essay, I will use “Leitmotif,” “signature tune,” and “theme” interchangeably.)
Now this idea of attaching musical themes to elements of a drama was not exactly new when Wagner came along; it was just never used to such an extent as in his four Ring works. The use of music to show a state of mind is as old as opera itself. The use of a motif to do the same is quite infrequent before Wagner. In Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” there is an eerie little theme in the woodwinds that show the young princess’s lunacy, and it is absolutely chilling whenever it appears. So is the Agamemnon motif in “Elektra.” Such examples can be drawn from just about any other Wagner-influenced opera.
However, the word “opera” is now applied to just about any musical work that is through-sung. When works with few discernible melodies at most are called “operas,” one has to rename them “plays with music” and let it go at that. Even Wagner did not call his works operas in the older sense of the term.
On the lighter side, operettas are seldom complex enough to call for Leitmotifs.
In all of Gilbert and Sullivan, for example, I can find only three examples in which a character or object has a signature tune. The Lord Chancellor in “Iolanthe” is forever appearing on stage with a little fugue to announce him. (Sullivan’s little joke about the legal mind being as complex and devious as a fugue!) The Mikado has a theme that opens up the overture and is heard at the start of the Act I finale and sung as he finally enters in Act II. A more telling use of a signature tune is in “The Yeomen of the Guard,” in which the grim old Tower itself is given a grand one, heard at the start of the overture and several times within the operetta itself.
However, it is Film that makes greater use of signature tunes than did any operas in the past. Listen to the soundtrack music of the first three Star Wars films with your eyes shut and you can tell exactly when Darth Vader has appeared on screen.
At the other end of the dramatic spectrum, we have the Cuckoo Song that is heard whenever Laurel and Hardy appear in their earlier films. In fact, when they play two sets of twins in “Our Relations,” the use of the cuckoo motif for one set and the hornpipe for their nautical relations is absolutely vital for our keeping track of which twin has just entered. This can perhaps be called a Lite Motif, but let that go.
Miklos Rozsa makes excellent use of the Leitmotif in the 1942 “Jungle Book” with Sabu. Each animal in the jungle is given its own signature tune. The elephants, of course, are given their motif in the deep brass; the panther has a sinuous, sliding theme; the monkeys enjoy the xylophone to help them scamper among the jungle growth. Humans are given a busy, workaday theme, and even the jungle itself is glorified with mysterious and lush music that is rivaled, perhaps, only by Wagner’s Forest Murmurs or the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony.
Other uses of signature tunes are frankly commercial. That grand old film noir “Laura” introduces that theme not only during the credits, but just about at every other opportunity. Later, words were added and a hit tune was born. Rozsa writes in his autobiography that music from “The Jungle Book” was the first film music to be recorded for commercial sales. This led quickly to the “soundtrack” recording, among the best selling of which was “Ben Hur” and “El Cid” (both by Rozsa), “Gone With the Wind” (the Tara theme becoming too well known as the opening music to “Million Dollar Movie” on television), and countless others, some with only one piece of music (if that) among the several selections to recommend it.
Wagner knew what he was doing. Too many composers after him only thought they knew what they were doing. But more about them at some future time.